Disney Cruise Line turns 20 years old this year with the anniversary of the maiden voyage of the Disney Magic on July 30, 1998.
The seeds for Disney Cruise Line were actually sewn in 1985, when Disney partnered with Premier Cruises to offer what were known then as land-and-sea vacation packages — guests would spend several days at Walt Disney World before heading over to Port Canaveral on the East Coast of Florida. There, they’d board one of Premier’s Big Red Boats for a cruise through the Caribbean.
The Premier/Disney cruises were billed as “America’s No. 1 Family Cruise Vacation,” and for several years, the association between Disney and Premier flourished. The Big Red Boats’ primary port of call was Nassau in the Bahamas. The boats stayed in port long enough for guests to enjoy tours of the island, swimming and boating by day, as well as nightclub and gambling options during the evening.
During the course of the cruise, the Big Red Boats would make a stop at a private island in the Bahamas, where guests could take a tender from the ship and disembark onto a small dock. Guests visiting the island were told that what made this island so special was the fact that it was used for some scenes for the TV show Gilligan’s Island. In fact, many people went so far as to actually call the spit of land Gilligan’s Island.
One Big Red Boat guest remembers a rather harrowing experience after visiting Premier’s island in 1986.
“This was my second cruise ever. Jerry Van Dyke [Disney Legend Dick Van Dyke’s brother] was the featured entertainer for the cruise. On the way back from ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ the waves became heavy. They had to turn the ship to block the wind so we could cross the gang plank. It was a little frightening. We crawled across. People on deck cheered as each group made their way across. Also, the wind blew off my hat, and everyone cheered that as well. I believe that was the last time they anchored the ship at sea and tendered people to the island. The next year, they tendered us from Nassau and left the ship docked.”
Not exactly the kind of magical experience Disney was hoping for. After a few years, the Disney hierarchy realized that the 10-year licensing agreement it had with Premier was troubling. For one thing, Premier’s ships, built decades before the Americans with Disabilities Act, were not handicapped-accessible.
For another, Disney was concerned that it didn’t have complete control over what was being offered on the ships, mainly in the areas of guest service, cleanliness, food and entertainment. And lastly, newer, much larger and decidedly more upscale ocean liners were now plying the world’s oceans, part of an industry-wide resurgence by all the major cruise lines, and would-be cruisers were flocking in droves to these opulent “floating cities” and all they had to offer.
Premier’s Big Red Boats I, II and III floundered after losing their Disney partnership in 1994. For a time, Premier hooked up with Universal, Walt Disney World’s chief competitor for theme park guests in central Florida, in an attempt to keep families with kids interested in cruising. They even offered characters from their own animation properties in an attempt to replicate what Disney had done.
But it wasn’t to be. The end came swiftly for Premier. In one memorable week in September of 2000, U.S. marshals seized all seven Premier cruise ships around the world, including The Big Red Boat II, which ended up being escorted to the Stapleton Navy home port on the New York City borough of Staten Island, having unloaded its unsuspecting passengers in Manhattan the day before.
It turns out the Big Red Boats, as well as their sister ships tied to Premier, were drowning in a sea of red ink. At the time, a recorded message on Premier’s phone line said: “We regret to inform you that Premier Cruise Lines was forced to suspend operations of all our vessels indefinitely. Our lender has taken possession of the ships pursuant to the ships’ mortgages.”
A total of 492 of Big Red Boat II’s crew members were left stranded on Staten Island for several weeks as lawyers sorted out the financial quagmire.
Of the three Big Red Boats which took part in the Disney/Premier association, only the Oceanic (Big Red Boat I) enjoyed a longer run than its sister ships. One by one, the boats met the inevitable fate of aging cruise liners — they were sold for scrap metal.
In an ironic twist, the rusting hulk of the Big Red Boat II was seen docked in Nassau in the Bahamas during a port call by the Disney Wonder in January of 2002. The ship still had a distinctive, if fading, P on its funnel.
In 2012, Big Red Boat I joined the other Premier liners on the scrap heap, closing the chapter on the Big Red Boats.
Several years before the Disney-Premier partnership ran out in 1994, then Disney CEO Michael Eisner began exploring the possibility of keeping a Disney presence in the cruise industry. Thus began a years-long process, trying to figure out just what course to take when it came to the Walt Disney Company’s seaworthiness.
For most of 1992, Disney explored three options: Partnerships with two major cruise lines were on the table, as was the possibility of taking the bold move of starting its own cruise line. The final option — letting the Premier partnership run out and leaving the cruise business altogether — was a third possibility.
Eisner gathered some his top executives in November of 1992 to tackle the cruise dilemma. In a meeting room in Glendale, Calif., were Eisner, Frank Wells, Al Weiss and Frank Ioppolo. Larry Murphy, then the company’s Executive Vice President and Chief Strategic Officer, gave a comprehensive presentation on why Disney should go full speed ahead and commit to becoming a major player in the cruise industry. The executives loved the idea and the Disney Cruise Line was born.
It turns out that green-lighting a Disney cruise ship operation was the easy part. Critical decisions had to be made before the first passengers would step aboard more than five years later. First and foremost: What would a Disney ship look like?
Eisner was an experienced cruiser who had very distinct ideas on what type of emotions any Disney ships should convey. “I want our ships to bring back a feeling of great times,” he said. He told his designers to “out-tradition tradition.”
Walt Disney Imagineering’s Wing Chao hired architect Mike Reminger to lead the effort to translate Eisner’s vision of “a modern classic” into an actual cruise ship.
While Eisner remembered seeing his grandparents sail off on the Queen Mary and he himself being on board a number of classic ocean liners, Chao and Reminger were cruise neophytes, having more experience watching “Love Boat” episodes than being on board actual cruises.
Reminger was nonplussed, however. Disney hired Art Rodney, formerly of Princess Cruise Lines, who brought a wealth of cruise experience to the table, particularly in the fields of business start-ups and ship construction. Reminger then brought on board Jon Rusten, formerly of Norwegian Cruise Line, whose strengths included ship design and construction.
Together, they sought out ship-building architectural firms in hopes that one of them could come up with Eisner’s desired “modern classic” design.
The early concepts for a Disney cruise ship ranged from whimsical to futuristic to downright eccentric. Of all the world’s leading naval architects working on the project, Hartmut Esslinger of Frogdesign came up with the version that most closely resembled what would eventually become DCL’s first ship, the Disney Magic.
Esslinger’s concept called for the use of two classically-designed funnels [modern ocean liners only need one functioning funnel, so the other is there just for esthetic reasons], a bridge area that fans out over the sides of the ship, and an elongated bowline. His concept also called for a black hull, with red, white and yellow accent colors … the colors sported by none other than Mickey Mouse. In short, the design best captured Eisner’s vision of a “modern classic.”
Once the design was settled on, the next big challenge was selecting a shipyard to build the ship. Cantieri Navali Italiani S.p.A., which also is known by the acronym Fincantieri, was chosen. To speed up construction, it was decided to build the ship in two parts, with the bow being built in the company’s Ancona shipyard and the stern 100 miles north in Marghera.
In April of 1997, the arduous, days-long task of marrying the bow to the stern began; the two parts were joined a few days later. While construction continued in Italy, interior design elements and philosophical decisions were made back in the United States. The ship would feature industry-first rotational dining, where guests and their servers would rotate among three signature restaurants each night. There would be expansive areas devoted to children, as well as night spots dedicated to adults. And Disney-branded, Broadway-quality entertainment in the elegant Walt Disney Theater would be a top priority. It also was decided to acquire an island in the Bahamas, renamed Castaway Cay, where DCL guests could spend a day romping and relaxing in on the idyllic Caribbean hideaway.
After construction was completed, the Disney Magic made its first trans-Atlantic trip to the United States and was christened in Port Canaveral, Fla., in 1998. A year later, the Magic’s sister ship, the Disney Wonder [also built by Fincantieri, but in one piece] set sail in August of 1999. Both ships carry 2,700 passengers. In recent years, the Wonder has been positioned on the West Coast of the United States, making port calls as far north as Alaska and Canada and as far south as Mexico and Panama. Meanwhile, the Magic has spent several seasons sailing the waters of the Mediterranean, as well as ports from New York to New Brunswick, Canada.
With the unquestioned success of the Magic and Wonder, Disney decided to expand its fleet with the addition of two larger, more technologically advanced ships. Both the Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy feature similar characteristics as the Magic and Wonder, but both are 40% larger and can carry up to 4,000 guests. And both the Dream, which debuted in 2011, and the Fantasy [which was christened in New York City in 2012] were built in the Meyer Werft Shipyards in Papenburg, Germany.
On the horizon for Disney Cruise Line are the additions of three new ships, currently being built at the Meyer Werft facility. The yet-to-be-named ships are due to be launched in 2021, 2022 and 2023. In keeping with Disney’s philosophy of being kind to the environment, the new ships will be powered by cleaner-burning liquefied natural gas.
As you might expect, the ships will be state-of-the-art, but will still evoke the “modern classic” feel first featured on the soon-to-be 20-year-old Disney Magic.